Learning about the Suez Canal’s Significance as It Remains Blocked

revolutionary trade route in spotlight during historic canal blockage

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A ship blocking the Suez Canal is ruining trade in the Middle East. The canal drastically reduces the sailing distance between Europe and India by half. The construction of the Suez Canal changed the course of history.

Painting of Suez Canal
The 100-mile-long Suez Canal was built across the Isthmus of Suez from 1854 to 1869. Photo By Everett Collection / Shutterstock

The day the Suez Canal opened, it cut 4,500 miles off the sailing distance from Europe to India, and back. This reduced distance revolutionized trading in the Middle East for England, Russia, and France, and it ended up putting Egypt into a debt that would cost the nation its independence.

The importance of the Suez Canal for so many nations’ economies is in the news again as a 400-meter cargo ship has become lodged diagonally within the canal, blocking traffic heading both ways. A total of more than 200 ships have backed up due to the incident, with time-sensitive cargo being rerouted via airplanes and trains as efforts are made to dig the ship out of its jam.

In his video series Turning Points in Middle Eastern History, Professor Eamon Gearon, Professorial Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, said the world-changing canal staffed no fewer than 30,000 at a time during its construction.

Suez Canal by the Numbers

“Groundbreaking took place at Port Sa’id on April 25, 1859, and work was completed exactly a decade later,” Professor Gearon said. “But at what cost? A total of one and a half million people worked on the project over the 10 years it took to build the canal.

“During the first four years, the manual toil was performed by forced labor—mainly Egyptian peasants pressed into service by the khedive.”

Khedive was an honorary title given to sultans and grand viziers during the Ottoman Empire. Professor Gearon said that the Suez Canal always had at least 30,000 people working on it, and its total death toll was 100,000 workers. Additionally, the canal’s dimensions have grown over time.

“In the beginning, it was 102 miles long, and since then has grown to a length of 120 miles, a depth of 79 feet, and a width of almost 700 feet across,” he said. “Yet the most important figure is as true today as it was on opening day in 1869. That’s the fact that the Suez Canal cut almost in half the sea voyage from India to Britain, slicing no less than four and a half thousand miles from a single trip.”

Drowning in Debt

A French diplomat named Ferdinand de Lesseps curried favor with Egyptian rulers in the mid-19th century and received permission to build the Canal. He founded the Universal Suez Ship Canal Company in 1858; shareholders footed the bill—mainly French, although 22% of the shares belonged to Egyptian rulers.

However, less than 20 years later, lavish spending by the Egyptian government radically changed the ownership of the canal.

“By 1875, Egypt’s financial crisis had come to a head,” Professor Gearon said. “Facing bankruptcy, Khedive Ismail sold what he could to raise money in a hurry. One asset that could readily be converted to cash was Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal.”

According to Professor Gearon, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli seized the opportunity to make Great Britain a major player in the future of the canal, buying four million pounds sterling—the equivalent of 90 million pounds today or $140 million USD—worth of shares. This made Britain the owner of 44% of the canal’s shares.

Unfortunately for Egypt, even the money that was earned by selling off the Suez Canal shares had failed to clear its debts. Before long, Ismail had to accept joint Anglo-French control over Egypt’s finances and government, ending the nation’s independence.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily